Workers Health & Safety Centre

An interview with Dave Killham, Executive Director, Workers Health & Safety Centre

An interview with Dave Killham, Executive Director, Workers Health & Safety Centre
Dave Killham assumed the role of Executive Director for the Workers Centre in July 2002. He brings to the position extensive leadership experience having served the Canadian labour movement in various capacities for 25 years.
Dave most recently served as the Workers Centre Director, Training Services, Toronto Region, responsible for coordinating the Centre’s training development and delivery efforts throughout Central Ontario. As a member of the United Brewers Warehousing Workers Union, Dave contributed as an executive officer, steward, health and safety advocate and benefit representative. As political action, education and communication coordinator with United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), Local 175 he helped establish and direct their training centre in Mississauga. In 1999 he was appointed special assistant to the national director UFCW Canada. His responsibilities again included training, education and political advocacy.
Dave resides in Cambridge, Ontario with his partner Debbie, 12-year-old daughter Alexandra and 6-year-old son Fraser.

Judging by your background, you are obviously committed to improving the lives of working women and men, but of all the social justice issues you could be working on, what was it about occupational health and safety that said, “Yes, this is now what I am going to dedicate my efforts to?”

There’s no question it’s a fundamental issue in the labour movement, as it is with all working people. Frankly, one of the vehicles of getting involved in the labour movement was through my advocacy in health and safety. 
As a member of the United Brewers Warehousing Workers I drove a beer truck for Brewers Retail. I became a steward almost immediately. I was interested in health and safety because we were exposed to a number of unsafe working conditions. We routinely lifted beer kegs that weighed 165 to 170 lbs. We handled about 20,000 tonnes of beer a day, delivering to basements and cellars, up and down flights of stairs. Because the product was carbonated there was also the risk of explosion. Sadly, one of my closest friends lost an eye when a bottle exploded. That brought home to me the importance of health and safety.
Creating safe and healthy workplaces is a challenging goal. If we can’t completely eliminate risk we can strive to make it so minor that when my children and other people’s children enter the workforce, their life, their health, their safety will indeed be protected.

I remember when you and several others from your union were trained as instructors. It was an exciting time. Looking back, what were some of the critical health and safety issues you and your co-workers faced?

This may sound like a promotional piece for the Workers Centre, but instructor training was probably the best training I ever received. It was a watershed for me. The foundation I received in that program helped support the work I did with the UFCW, which involved training, education and politics.
At the time, in 1987 I was an executive board member at my local union and chief steward at our warehouse. We used a lot of power equipment like stackers, transporters and forklifts. Exposure to diesel exhaust was a real problem. All of our trucks, 60 or 70, were powered by diesel fuel. Cancer was a major concern in our workplace. It seemed if someone had passed away, if it wasn’t from cancer, it was from respiratory or heart disease. 
From research we learned a major component of diesel exhaust is benzo(a)pyrene, a carcinogen. We went to the employer and through our joint health and safety committee we forced them to install louvers to help ventilate the area. That issue in particular motivated me because we were dealing with carcinogens. Unlike material handling issues or cuts from broken glass, now you’re confronted with an insidious, unseen health and safety problem that we had to address.
Musculoskeletal injuries (MSI) — what a hot topic it was and still is today. My co-workers suffered a lot of serious back injuries but many more suffered, often silently, with life altering repetitive strain injuries.
It seemed the risk factors for MSI could be found in all sectors, they weren’t restricted to poultry plant workers and retail checkout clerks. It didn’t seem to matter where you worked because it impacted those who worked in auto manufacturing, in mines, in the garment industry and many office workers too. Back then employers did everything they could to suggest MSI weren’t work related. We know different now.

As you assume this new role at the Centre what has changed since you first got involved in health and safety?

We’ve seen a lot of changes but what has remained constant is the Centre’s key messaging which underscores that workers are injured because of unsafe conditions, not because of unsafe acts. We’ve battled the myth of the careless worker since I’ve been involved in the labour movement. It is very easy to blame the victim, no one else has to take responsibility.
It used to be unless you were bleeding noboby believed you were hurt. I had lots of co-workers who were disabled with soft tissue injuries. They were really suffering yet others looked at them as if they weren’t really hurt. Now, there’s an acknowledgement that these injuries are very real. Regrettably, MSI are still disabling workers across all sectors in alarming numbers. Now these injuries are acknowledged as a disease. Fortunately too, we use the word accident less. That’s a good thing because accident sounds like it’s not preventable, and of course, they are. All of this has helped broaden the debate on occupational disease and moved us off the traditional focus on traumatic injuries and accidents.
Occupational disease has never been of greater concern to us and to our member organizations. We still live in a chemical world even though it’s been 15 years since Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) was introduced. Back then WHMIS was a pretty new concept yet regrettably it’s one we’re still attempting to enforce. Today, there are more chemicals being introduced in the workplace than ever. Epidemiological studies are no way to determine whether something is a carcinogen. It’s too late in the day. 
We also know these chemicals aren’t confined to the workplace. There’s no bubble, no shield to stop toxins from escaping. The Centre is committed to promoting not only the well-being of workers but also their families and the communities in which they live. We’re in this struggle together. We have a responsibility to each other to ensure the safest, healthiest workplace and environment possible.

So where do we go from here? What are the priority issues as you see them?

The status quo will never get us to our goal of hazard-free workplaces. We still have a lot of work to do.
The Workers Centre has an excellent reputation. A lot of credit has to go to my predecessor, Clarence MacPherson, who helped lay the foundation for the Centre’s success.
Ontario was always the leader on health and safety initiatives. I don’t know if that’s the case right now. We were successful in pressing for and helping workplaces comply with Certification phase II but we know there are workplaces that have yet to complete the training.
At the Centre we’ve long argued for a training minimum for all workplace representatives. But we need more than WHMIS. Look at the reports. Workers are being critically injured and killed everyday because work procedures and training are not provided. What’s more worrisome is this is happening on issues we thought we’d already dealt with, such as confined space entry, lockout, machine-guarding and working at heights. If we’re still trying to rid workplaces of these unsafe conditions how will we ever effectively deal with tougher issues like occupational disease?
The Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) reports alarming increases in occupational disease over the last decade. Claims have increased more than 10 times since 1990. More and more research points to the connection between industrial activity and rates of cancer. We simply can’t dismiss the growing rates of cancer that today strike one in three Canadians and is the second leading cause of death among Canadians under the age of 20.
Bringing people to this reality, making those crucial links back to the workplace and fostering connections between workers and the broader community will continue to be a priority for the Centre. The numerous campaigns of our member organizations tell us it’s also a priority for them. Working together we can raise the bar on prevention and press for legislated standards that protect workers from all hazards whether the source is a chemical or a poorly designed job.
No doubt, we have our work cut out for us. As we tackle new and emerging issues we also have to remain vigilant on concerns we thought we’d safely addressed.
The Centre led the way years ago in communicating a prevention message to young workers.  Nothing is more tragic than a young worker who dies before their time. I think we’ve been more successful in getting the message out to young workers in recent years. When I was in high school, I never heard anything about health and safety. Most recently we’ve joined with member organizations and community partners on the LifeQuilt, a unique opportunity to build a community of interest and deliver a message we’ve long promoted — our youth are our future.
How we communicate our message presents us with ongoing challenges partly because our constituency is constantly changing. For instance, frequent environmental scans tell us half of all new immigrants to Canada will settle in Ontario. Cultural and language barriers will leave these new workers especially vulnerable. New resources will have to consider culturally sensitive approaches and foreign-language proficiency.
Casual and migrant workers are at even greater risk but we’re finding ways to reach them too. For instance, we recently worked with one of our constituents to assist in developing a plain language health and safety manual for migrant farm workers. We also co-sponsored an instructor training session for Spanish-speaking activists who will now go into the heart of farming communities to deliver the training.
It’s important to remain open to new approaches. The Centre has to find a doorway to get in to places to be able to talk to people. Usually the key is our constituency, organized labour, and employers who need training. But there are other ways of us getting through that door too. Sometimes we need symbols or tools to dramatically communicate our message. The LifeQuilt is a good example of this. It uniquely engages people and invites them to learn more.

This is one daunting list of concerns. How do we make our way forward on these concerns? What will be the Workers Centre’s role in all of this?

Anyone who works for or is associated with the Workers Health and Safety Centre has a daunting task. We’ve done some wonderful things in the past, and I’m confident we’ll accomplish even more in the future. We know from experience we need to marshal all tools and resources within the health and safety system to reduce worker suffering.
The Workers Centre philosophy has always been about workers training workers, but it’s also about nurturing, updating and upgrading. It’s never been about taking someone like myself, putting them through a two-week program back in 1987 then saying ‘see you later’. We always try to find dynamic ways of facilitating that we can share with our instructors, ideas that will better enable them to deliver our message.
At a recent instructor upgrade session I was very pleased to talk to a number of activists. They’re a really diverse group doing something they really enjoy and that they know is unbelievably valuable to their fellow workers and indeed to their communities.
I think our approach has alot to do with confidence. Sometimes we challenge ourselves and question, can I do this? Unfortunately sometimes we think we can’t. In reality we all can. Given the proper training, given the proper initiatives and given the proper support, which the Centre provides, folks like myself and others gain the confidence to stand up in front of their peers and others and do a fantastic job sharing their health and safety knowledge and experience.
This brings to mind an old Chinese expression attributed to Lao Tsu that says, “…when the work is done…the task accomplished, the people will say ‘We have done this ourselves.’” When we’re part of a community, whether participating in training or somehow building people’s confidence, when the success is there, we can say ‘we did it’. We were empowered to do it and have the confidence to do it. That in itself is an amazing accomplishment. It’s the way that works.